Captive: Al Qaeda Has Radioactive Weaponry

WASHINGTON?A senior al Qaeda member has told interrogators that the terrorist organization knows how to build a “dirty bomb” capable of dispersing radioactivity over a wide area, a U.S. official said.

Officials don’t know whether to believe Abu Zubaydah, who also recently claimed al Qaeda was targeting banks in the northeastern United States. That report was the basis of an FBI alert last week.

“It could be he’s not being truthful,” the official said Monday, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It could be that he’s boasting.”

Abu Zubaydah’s statements further confirmed al Qaeda’s interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction, but they don’t suggest the group has any unknown capabilities, the official said.

Asked Tuesday whether Abu Zubaydah’s claims have been deemed credible, Bush administration spokesman Ari Fleischer said, “Those are judgments that intelligence experts make based on not only what he says, but on other pieces of information that will corroborate information. Obviously, his capture is a significant asset to the United States government.”

Captured in Pakistan and turned over to U.S. authorities last month, Abu Zubaydah, the senior al Qaeda in U.S. custody, did not claim that the group had built any radiological weapons.

Such a weapon?also called a radiological dispersal device?would use conventional explosives to spread industrial or medical-grade radioactive material in a populated area to cause widespread fear of exposure.

They are not thought to be difficult to build. Acquiring enough radioactive material to do harm is regarded as the greatest challenge for terrorists.

A radiological device detonated by terrorists would require evacuation and decontamination of the immediate area and disrupt the local economy, officials from U.S. nuclear laboratories said at a recent Senate committee hearing. Hospitals would be overrun by worried people from the affected area.

Depending on factors ranging from the bomb’s construction to wind direction on the day such a weapon was used, a potent dirty bomb could kill a few people quickly if they were exposed to enough radiation, officials said. Others would face a greater likelihood of developing cancers later in life.

Much of the U.S. government’s thinking on the subject is theoretical, because no one has detonated a radiological weapon.

In other news, authorities burst into apartments in several cities on Tuesday and arrested 11 alleged Islamic militants suspected of planning terrorist attacks in Germany, prosecutors said.

The suspects are believed to be part of a London-based Palestinian group known as Al Tahwid and were being questioned by police, the federal prosecutor’s office said in a statement.

One suspect was identified as Yaser H., a 36-year-old Palestinian living in the western German city of Essen. German authorities do not release full names of suspects.

Prosecutors said the cell provided false travel documents, collected donations and arranged travel for Islamic fighters. “There are also signs that this cell has begun to plan attacks in Germany,” the statement said.

Germany was home to three of the Sept. 11 hijackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta, and has been a major focal point of the international investigation into Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network begun after the terrorist attacks on the United States.

Last week, five Algerians with suspected links to al Qaeda went on trial in Frankfurt on charges they plotted an attack on a Christmas market in France during millennium celebrations.